The Feast of Pentecost

Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

"The feast of the descent of the Holy Spirit." I say these words I've known since childhood, and all at once they strike me as if I'm hearing them for the first time. Yes, from the time I was a child I knew that ten days following the Ascension, meaning fifty days after Pascha, Christians from time immemorial celebrated and continue to celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit in a feast known by its church name as Pentecost, or more popularly as "Trinity," the day of the Trinity.

For centuries, to prepare for this feast the churches were cleaned and adorned with greenery and branches, and grass was strewn about the floor... On the day of the feast, at the solemn vespers, the faithful stood in church holding flowers in their hands. These customs explain how the feast of Pentecost entered Russian popular consciousness and literature as a kind of sun-filled, bright celebration, the feast of flowering, a kind of joyful encounter between human beings and God's world in all its beauty and grace.

All religions, including the most ancient and primitive, had a feast of summer flowering, a feast to celebrate the first appearance of shoots, plants, fruit. In ancient Judaism, this was the feast of Pentecost. If in Old Testament religion Passover celebrated spring's resurrection of the world and nature, then the Jewish Pentecost was the feast of movement from spring to summer, celebrating the victory of sun and light, the feast of cosmic fullness. But in the Old Testament a feast common to all human societies acquires a new meaning: it becomes the annual commemoration of the ascent of Moses up Mount Sinai, where in an inexpressible mystical encounter God revealed himself, entered into a Covenant, gave commandments, and promised salvation. In other terms, religion ceased being simply nature, and now became the beginning of history: God had revealed his law, his commandments, his plan for humanity, and had shown the way. Spring, summer, the eternal natural cycle, became a sign and symbol not only of nature, but of man's spiritual destiny and the commandment to grow into fullness of knowledge, life and perfect wholeness... Finally, in the very last phase of the Old Testament, through the teaching and insight of the prophets, this feast became a celebration directed toward the future, to God's final victory in his creation. Here is how the prophet Joel speaks of this:

And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even upon the men-servants and maidservants in those days, I will pour out my spirit. And I will give signs in the heavens and on the earth...before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And it shall come to pass that all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be delivered... (Joel 2:28-32) Thus, the Jewish feast of Pentecost is a feast of nature and the cosmos, a feast of history as the revelation of God's will for the world and human beings, a feast of future triumph, of God's victory over evil and the coming of the great and last "day of the Lord." All this must be kept in mind in order to grasp how the first Christians experienced, understood, and celebrated their feast of Pentecost, and why it became one of the most important Christian celebrations.

The Book of Acts, devoted to recounting the history of the first Christians and the initial spread of Christianity, starts precisely with the day of Pentecost, describing what took place fifty days after Christ's resurrection and ten days after his ascension into heaven. Just before his ascension Christ had told the disciples "not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which he said, 'you heard from me..." (Acts 1:4). So in ten days, according to St Luke's account,

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance... And all who heard were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others mocking said, "They are filled with new wine." (Acts 2:1-4, 12.13)

To those witnesses who remained skeptical, the apostle Peter explained the meaning of the event using the words of the prophet Joel quoted above. "This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel," he said, "And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh..." (Acts 2:16,17).

For the Christian, therefore, the feast of Pentecost is the completion of all that Christ accomplished. Christ taught about the Kingdom of God, and here it is, now opened! Christ promised that the Spirit of God would reveal the truth, and now this is fulfilled. The world, history, life, time, are all illumined with the final, transcendent light-all are filled with ultimate meaning. The last and great day of the Lord has begun!